Article Written By Arlene Klemow
Elizabeth – As they mark two years since their homes, lives and futures were swallowed up in the catastrophic earthquake, dozens of Union County’s Haitian refugees hold hard and fast to their new lifeline – their bi-weekly literacy class that promises to help them rebuild their lives. These free English lessons offered in Elizabeth, provided by Literacy Volunteers of Union County in collaboration with Jefferson Park Ministries, and funded by a special three-year grant from the United Way of Greater Union County, spotlight the critical role literacy and language skills play in improving and enhancing lives.
“Illiteracy lies at the root of so many social problems and ills in our society,” said Elizabeth Gloeggler, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Union County. “With this special program designed for the Haitian refugees, as always, our goal is to help individuals with the greatest need and the least resources change their lives by developing the ability to read, write and speak English.” And the stakes couldn’t be higher. For the 35 individuals ranging in age from 26 to 70 years of age who are currently participating in the class, learning English and discovering the vocational and educational options available to them, are truly the keys to their futures.
“This program, launched last year and serving at least 40 adults a year, is all about moving the refugees out of their current situation,” said Gloeggler. “Our focus is to enable these individuals to get jobs.” Chris Sienkielewski of South Plainfield, Literacy Volunteers’English-as-a-second-language specialist, stands at the head of the classroom. With over seven years of experience teaching ESL, and recalling the challenges her own grandparents faced when they came to this country as immigrants from Italy, she has tremendous respect and compassion for the Haitian students. “I always say to my ESL students – you are the bravest people I know. To pick up and move to a new place when you don’t speak the language – it’s tremendously challenging. I imagine how I would feel if I was suddenly dropped in a different country.” Hopeful and determined – that’s also how Sienkielewski would describe the Haitians who come to class from Elizabeth, Roselle, Rahway, and Irvington. “They do what they have to just to get to class. They walk, take buses – they are so motivated.”
They come with varying educational backgrounds – some speaking French in addition to their native language, Creole. But what strikes Sienkielewski is the common bond she shares with the students. “They have the same goals you and I have.” With the assistance of three literacy volunteers, Sienkielewski splits the class into small groups to provide opportunities for more conversation and practice. Three hours each week, they work on pronunciation, vocabulary, and conversation. “Every lesson is interconnected with life skills, social skills and employment skills,” said Sienkielewski. “We are focused on providing them language skills that will enhance their ability to get jobs.”
“I love being able to teach them about American culture,” said Sienkielewski, an avid country music fan. “I like to include the music of Johnny Cash, George Strait and Alan Jackson into the lessons. The stories can be so engaging!” “American’s have the notion that immigrants don’t want to learn English. That’s just not true,” said Sienkielewski. “I see how hard they work and I realize how difficult it is to learn English. As native born English speakers, we tend to take that for granted.”
In one of her lessons, Sienkielewski asks her students to write about their dreams and goals. “We focus on what steps they need to take to get there,” she said. One young woman expressed that she wants to go to school and learn to be a nurse so she can return to Haiti and open up an orphanage. “That’s why I do this – to help people help others.”